Single community dream a millstone round Asean's neck

The foremost priority for Asean's national leaders in the foreseeable future will be making strong nations and states at home to preserve their hold on power.
The foremost priority for Asean's national leaders in the foreseeable future will be making strong nations and states at home to preserve their hold on power.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With 2015 targeted as the year in which it becomes a single political-security and economic community, Asean has become the subject of numerous commentaries. In a commentary in these pages, for example, Mr Barry Desker (senior Singapore diplomat and former dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) asks if Asean integration is a growing reality or an aspiration that remains unfulfilled.

Asserting that Asean integration remains an illusion, he bemoans the lack of path-breaking measures to realise the goal of a single Asean community. Likewise, Dr Raman Letchumanan (a former Asean official), lamenting "the lack of clear, coherent messaging", asserts that "Asean must make a concerted effort to convey in specific... terms what it has planned to achieve and how well it is doing".

Single community

THE goal of an Asean community advanced by certain scholars in academia and think-tanks and subsequently embraced by the association's leaders and bureaucrats has become a millstone for Asean.

The grouping's success is now increasingly measured in terms of progress made or the lack of progress in realising its self-declared objectives of becoming a single community by this year in the economic, political-security and socio-cultural domains.

Despite pro-community public pronouncements by political leaders and bureaucrats at the regional and national levels, and the papering over of shortfalls and important national differences on some key issues, Asean is unlikely to become a single community (in the real meaning of that term) any time soon.

In my view, it is preferable for Asean integration and community building to remain ongoing long-term aspirations that may or may not be fulfilled in the decades to come.

Asean should rid itself of straitjacketing objectives like becoming a single community by a certain date and focus its limited resources and attention on strengthening its capacity and effectiveness in immediately relevant roles.

"Community" implies a body politic that shares a common history, culture, sense of belonging and identity, willingness to live together in harmony under a common political-legal framework, and belief in a shared destiny.

A community usually has a central authority that can make binding decisions for all its peoples. Clearly Asean is far from this definition and it is unclear if it will ever become such a community.

Losing touch with reality?

SOME may argue that Asean envisions a more limited community. Based on the three-pillared Asean community chartered in Asean documents, the grouping envisions integration and community building which, in several cases, seeks to go beyond the nation-state.

The purpose or goal of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) to be achieved by this year, for example, is for "the AEC (to) transform Asean into a region with free movement of goods, services, investments, skilled labour and freer movement of capital".

Even if one were to accept the idea of a more limited community (whatever that means), the key point is that Asean appears unlikely to meet its self-declared objectives within the stipulated time frame.

In formulating Asean community-building objectives, it appears that political leaders, officials and regionally minded scholars have lost touch with reality, arising from the fact that all Asean countries, with the exception of Thailand, became independent countries only in the post-World War II period. Most are still engaged in contested processes of making national communities and states. Nation-making is a long and unending conflict-prone process.

Several Asean countries confront challenges from so-called minorities that demand redefinition of the nation, greater devolution of state power or separate nation-states. Likewise, state-making in many Asean countries faces challenges.

Most states in South-east Asia do not command monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within their territorial boundaries and authority is not centralised in the state. Further, political systems in many Asean countries are in the midst of contestation and change, at times through violent means.

Suffering challenges and contestations at home and abroad, "national" leaders' priority has continued to be making preferred national communities and states, as well as preserving their own hold on political power.

Regional integration and community-building not only will be lower priority but also may not be feasible despite the ambitions of certain regionally minded political leaders, officials and scholars.

Regional cooperation v national state-making

REGIONAL cooperation in South- east Asia, as elsewhere in the developing world, has been governed by considerations relating to national community and state-making.

Rather than being regressive or demonstrating lack of political will, norms like non-interference in domestic affairs and decision-making by consensus are a necessity. They reflect the high priority attached to nation-state- making and protection of incumbent government. They have been key drivers of domestic and international politics in South-east Asia as in other developing regions. Ignoring or down-playing this reality, as often done by regionalism enthusiasts, carries severe risks.

Persisting with regional ambitions that outstrip reality risks not only demonstrating that the emperor has no clothes but it may also subject Asean to ridicule. It is time for Asean to focus on what it is and what it is good at, and rid itself of unrealistic ambitions.

Strengths of Asean

ASEAN is basically an intergovernmental organisation that is good among other things in strengthening the diplomatic voice of Asean countries, legitimising the South- east Asian political map, facilitating bilateral and multilateral cooperation among member states in certain areas, enhancing security of member countries, and constructing orders in the region. Even in these roles, Asean suffers limitations. Hence, the tendency to overplay the economic-, security- and order-constructing roles of Asean by overstating its achievements should be avoided.

With due recognition of its possibilities and limits, political leaders and officials should take necessary measures to strengthen these roles of Asean and its intergovernmental nature. Asean does not have to become a single community to strengthen the association as an intergovernmental organisation or further develop these roles.

Instead, Asean should delicately sidestep the goals of integration and community building, designating them as long-term objectives to be realised under appropriate circumstances.

The foremost priority for Asean national leaders in the foreseeable future will be making strong nations and states at home to preserve their hold on power.

Regional community-building will be lower priority and likely to succeed only when it can contribute to or does not hinder realisation of the primary national objectives of incumbent leaders. Regional aspirations and targets not grounded in that reality will meander and ultimately flounder.


The writer is non-resident senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Asia Programme. This is adapted from an earlier commentary from Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.